How This Star Comedian Writes Onstage, and What He Learned From Chris Rock

Hari Kondabolu—one of the best comedians working today. Writing Routines

Hari Kondabalu is one of his generation’s rising stars in the world of comedy. The New York Times called him “one of the most necessary political comedians working today.” He’s been featured on on the Late Show with David Letterman Conan Jimmy Kimmel LiveLive at Gotham and John Oliver’s New York Standup Show. He was also a writer and correspondent for the Chris Rock-produced Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell on FX.

All of that is to say he’s a person at the top of his craft—one of that includes writing plus performance. That’s why we thought to make him the subject of our latest profile in Writing Routines, a look at the at the craft of writing, through the eyes of its very best practitioners.

***

Let’s start with the basics. When do you do your writing?

It’s never really a set time. It kind of depends on what it is I’m writing. If I have a clear assignment—I have to get something in for a radio spot or I need to write a little bit of script because I have a podcast coming—then I’ll do that as soon as I can. It’s usually the day before or the day.

As a standup comic who tours the country, you could be somebody who is disciplined and writes every day, or you could be somebody who catches lightning in a bottle and runs with it. I feel like I’m unfortunately more of the latter. I wish I were more of the former, and I try to be more of the former, but for me, I need something to push me in order to really write in a focused way.

Throughout the day, you have moments of, “Oh I’m going to write down this thought, this conversation I had.” The most exciting stuff is the moment you think of something and you write it down, and it’s full of possibilities—and then when the joke is complete. In between, it’s work.

So for me because I’ve realized that my writing has become so slow and dependent on there being a goal, so I have created goals for myself in order to be able to write large amounts at once. For example, I started doing comedy in Seattle, where I have a strong following and people like to see my process. So what I’ll do is I’ll rent a little theater, about 40 seats, and I’ll do four shows—two nights with two shows per night. I’ll start with very little. The first show is basically bullet points and little notes I’ve written, and I try to basically write the jokes on stage. So there’s only a little preparation to figure out some of the points and punchlines, but it’s loose. I try not to write word for word because how you write and how you speak are very different and this is a performance artform. It doesn’t matter how I write it: I need reaction.

I usually tape record it, and I write using the stuff from the tape. The first show or two are rough because I didn’t come with clear punchlines. I have a view, I have a structure, but I don’t know where things are going to go.

Is that how you’ve always done it?

When I started doing comedy, I would write every word out and I would get wedded to that wording—I didn’t know if the wording was effective. Then I learned: it’s not about expressing yourself clearly. It’s about expressing yourself clearly in order to get a joke to hit. Those are different goals.

So writing has become for me unfortunately grabbing that lightning in a bottle. It’s in my head somewhere, and I need to pin it down. I’ve lost enough stuff because I’ve said I’ll write it down later or I’ll decide it’s not that great, and I’ll give up on it too early.

The discipline there is to make sure to write down whatever it is that’s in your head and do not assume it’ll ever come back. Do not assume that you’ll remember the structure that you just came up with. Do not assume that the premise will make sense later if you don’t write it out—not just writing a couple words to help you remember later.

No, you’ve got to make sure it’s clear to you later. You think of a lot of things during the day and unlike a lot of people who let those thoughts go, you can’t let them go. That’s where the discipline is.

You’re very active on social media and it seems like you end up testing a lot of ideas there, that later become a part of your show. Can you talk about that?

Tweeting is not something that I do every hour, but certainly it’s the beginning of a lot of material. It’s unfortunate because sometimes I forget the joke because I put it up on Twitter, get the feedback, and the feedback immediately takes away from the desire to keep building it even though it was just a premise.

That’s another thing I’ve been doing is going back through all of the things I’ve tweeted, writing them out on paper again and trying to figure out what was exciting about it at the time. Why did people enjoy it at 140 characters? What’s deeper that’s contained within it?

In interesting way both of those mediums, on stage at the first show in Seattle and on Twitter, your first drafts are alive. Your first drafts are things you’re presenting to the world unfinished.

That’s why comedy is so scary. That’s why working out material is really difficult. That’s why open mics, regardless of whether you’re a famous comedian or whether you just started, they’re kind of in the same place when they start a joke. Because you don’t know where you’re new joke is going. The veteran comedian has a bunch of other skills that will help get that joke written, but it’s still the same process: I have an idea, I don’t know where it’s going, I’m going to figure it out, this might not work. That’s the same thing that a new comic and veteran comic deals with. That’s universal with new stuff—your first draft, your second draft, your third draft are on stage.

When you’re actually capturing those thoughts, not the Tweets, but the thoughts that occur to you during the day, do you email yourself? Do you put it in a moleskin? What’s your tool for making sure you don’t lose anything?

It’s best when I have a notepad with me to write in. But unfortunately, since Twitter came out, my first instinct is to put it out into the world. It was never that way before. The idea of putting something out into the world before I was ready to present it was terrifying. Before it would be “Do I have enough structure to even justify presenting this?” Now I don’t think about it.

I put it up. People like it or they don’t like it and I get a response. Sometimes that’s useful. How people respond to an idea helps me with the joke. People don’t understand this, or they are angry at that, or they are responding by saying this which I think is a ridiculous way to respond. So what’s my response to their response? Well, I will write it into the joke.

When you’re finalizing a joke, when it goes from first draft to say third or fourth draft and you’re actually starting to write things down, do you do that on a computer or a notebook?

I don’t write them down. Jokes are living things. I finalize a joke insomuch as I put it on an album or it’s on TV or I stop doing it or it hasn’t changed in a long time, but every joke has the potential of being updated, of being rewritten. Sometimes jokes just stop working because you forget a word. There are all sorts of different ways that jokes live, so they’re never written down. You just know them. The unfortunate thing is that once it gets too solidified it’s hard to reinvigorate it.

I like putting new jokes into my sets usually because I am excited about old jokes again because I don’t know how to segue from new stuff to old stuff because I’ve never done it before. So the old joke becomes new because there’s a new entry point.

When a joke feels so rote and old it’s like, what’s the point of this? The audience knows that I can’t sell it to them because I don’t care. If I’m reading something to them and they’re expecting a reading that’s one thing. Usually, they’re expecting a performance. They’re expecting it to feel like I just came up with it.

Has your process evolved from when you first started to now? Has it changed from when you were first getting up on stage to becoming more of a veteran yourself?

The biggest difference is my willingness to write on stage, and the reason I didn’t write on stage before was because it was scary. You want to go up with something you’ve written down and if things don’t work, you can just keep going. The writing part almost feels safer because it’s all imaginary, but when you go on stage, you can’t predict anything.

It was learning to let go to some degree and let the jokes be written in some ways by your natural instincts and the audiences reactions. That’s the thing I had to learn.

Also, I was writing stuff out and I was doing it verbatim and so when somebody would laugh all of a sudden in a place that I didn’t expect there to be a laugh, I wouldn’t know what to do. It’s weird. If a laugh feels like a heckle, that means you’re doing something wrong. It means you’re not able to embrace the live part of the artform. The writing is there, but this artform is meant to be consumed by the masses in real life. It’s meant to make people react in the moment. And that reaction hopefully is laughter. You can’t just write, and that’s what I had to teach myself and it was hard because that meant that I had to trust my instincts.

What’s the best advice you’ve gotten about comedy writing?

I forgot who told this to me, but he said there’s a reason why you’re funny. It’s not what you write; it’s who you are. It’s the way you say things. It’s how you think. The reason you make your friends laugh—there’s something in you that’s able to do that and you need to let that part of you out. Not the part of you that sat and wrote and came up with something, the part that needs to live on stage is the real you, the you that actually creates jokes all the time in real life, who finds moments to create levity.

That was something I thought about a lot. When people say it felt like a conversation or like you made it up on the spot that’s good, and that doesn’t happen by remembering a script.

Do you have any comedian’s voice in mind who you’re trying to emulate or whose process you’ve been inspired by?

The former, no. If anything, I avoid watching stand up or hearing stand up at this point in my career, I don’t want to accidentally end up emulating somebody else’s style. I’ve built my own style.

It’s not to say that influence is bad and that you can’t adapt. How many ways are there to tell a joke? Dozens. Sometimes you forget how to hide a punchline, and you realize there’s another way to get to the goal. That’s useful, but I don’t want other stylistic things to seep in inorganically.

I feel like every comic has value to me. Chris Rock used to be the producer of the show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell which I used to write for and be a correspondent on. I remember Chris came into the office one day, and he was talking about his frustration with younger comics leaving after their sets. They wouldn’t stay for the whole show. They would do their sets and they would leave. Chris thought that was ridiculous because you can learn something from everybody, which is true. Everybody has something to teach you in terms of delivery or thought process even if you disagree.

Sometimes I’ll see a comic do I joke and I completely disagree with that point of view. That doesn’t mean I go on stage and argue with the comic, what I think is “OK that point of view comes from somewhere. Where does that point of view come from?” Then I go on stage in the future when I’ve understood a way to respond to it. I’m not responding to joke exactly. I’m responding to the ideas underneath that are shared, that impact people.

Do you ever struggle with writer’s block? Do you ever have stretches where you’re not striking sparks?

Yes. It’s awful. It’s the worst feeling. It affects you in a couple ways because 1) You’re not turning out work that you’re excited by. 2) And the audience knows you don’t give a shit.

Luckily, I’ve been able to use Seattle to develop a lot of new material very quickly (for me) over the last couple of years. That’s a new phenomenon for me. Seattle tends to jog it out of me. I think it jogs it out of me because I have an audience who knows what I’m doing. They are supportive and let me play.

Writer’s block is miserable and part of it can be just being in a really bad place. Sometimes if you’re just in a bad mental place, it doesn’t matter what work you put in. You have to fix bigger things than your writing.

You said you have a writing partner—how did you enter into that partnership and how does that work?

Aham’s a comedian and a musician out of Seattle. When I lived in Seattle, I met him at an open mic. I really loved his jokes. They were smart. They were well-written and clearly he put a lot of thought into the language he was using. He was very intentional, which I appreciate. Not just in terms of what’s funny but intentional as in he didn’t want to harm anyone with humor, he just wanted to make people laugh and share his experience.

It was very refreshing to see, and I became friends with him. We started hanging out a ton and talking about jokes we were writing. We went to shows and gave each other thoughts. We wrote scripts together for various projects. When I had a TV pilot last year, he was the first writer I hired.

It’s somebody who when I’m around them I am very much myself—one of the best versions of myself. So it’s not like, “Here’s a joke. Write it for me.” It’s more sharing ideas and talking through the logic and all of the angles I could take. What do you think of this idea? That idea? It’s somebody who helps light the flame, who can spark you and get you going again. That’s how that works. It’s not quite sitting down together and writing things out joke by joke. It’s more of a feedback mechanism with somebody I really trust. But to have all of those things—it makes writing quicker and easier. That’s a big way my writer’s block breaks.

Do you have any favorite books about the craft of comedy or the creative process of comedy?

There are certain comics that inspire me a ton. W. Kamau Bell, who is my podcast co-host, is a dear friend and a mentor. Seeing Kamau write, perform on stage, and seeing his process reminds me about how this thing works. These are all the ways you can approach things.

Kurt Vonnegut always inspires me whenever I read a book of his. He was a writer, but he was full of jokes and ideas and interesting ways of explaining things.

Old Dave Chappelle or old Chris Rock sets—some of the stuff that inspired me to do comedy in the first place—those help as a reminder of what I am striving to be.

When did the spark to do this work come for you?

I was 16. I certainly didn’t see it as work. I do now, which is strange. Anyway, I was 16 and saw Margaret Cho do stand up and her perspective was very different than mine. I was a 16 year old Indian American kid from Queens, and she was an older-than-I-was Korean-American from San Francisco. There was something about her experience—aspects of her experience that echoed mine. Immigrant parents. Degrees of alienation. Fitting a particular mold. Stereotypes. I felt inspired because it wasn’t what I had seen for years which were Black, White, and Latino comics.

So I started doing it, and I did it all through high school. I started my own comedy night. Then I did it all through college. I was an immigrant rights organizer in Seattle so I did it at night and it was never something I saw as a career. It didn’t seem possible. The only person who I’d seen get big off of it was Russell Peters, and he was in Canada. There were a bunch of younger comics starting to come up, but you know, Aziz wasn’t famous yet. There was no proof as of then it was possible. There’s Kal Penn and Asif Mandvi, but in stand up, there was no proof really to me.

But I loved it, and if you love something you do it. It doesn’t mean that I need to make a career out of it. I knew I would always do standup whether I did it professionally or not. You can’t take that away. So I just kept doing it and eventually I realized I was good because of the laughter I got and because I had people coming back to my shows. I built a following in Seattle. That meant I was saying something that was compelling enough to enough people that they had it watch it and support it.

I got picked to be on a comedy festival called the HBO Comedy Festival which at the time was a very big festival in terms of picking new talent and showcasing them to the entertainment industry. I was on Jimmy Kimmel Live and then Comedy Central shortly after that. I’d gone to grad school in the middle of all that, too. I got a masters degree in human rights from the Lund School of Economics—that shows you how little faith I had even after getting a manager and getting television appearances!

All of a sudden it was open. After I got my masters degree, I had my education, and I had a lot of different passions. Somehow this door is still open. I’m getting emails from people telling me they are coming to see me perform, are excited about my clips online. I’m getting offers to do shows for money. There was something there that I did not see coming. I really didn’t think it was possible. So that’s what lead me to do this as a career. I stumbled into a career that I did because I loved it.

Jimmy Soni is the co-author of A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age and Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato.

Writing Routines is close look at the craft of writing, through the eyes of its very best practitioners. Visit writingroutines.com for more and follow Writing Routines on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter for updates.

How This Star Comedian Writes Onstage, and What He Learned From Chris Rock